The contention often advanced by playoff prognosticators that teams undermine their postseason performance by playing poorly down the stretch is poppycock. A review of Stanley Cup finalists from the past five years uncovers many who have stumbled before they've raced through the playoffs, including last year's champion Red Wings, who closed the season 2-3-3, and runner-up Flyers (2-3-2); the 1996 runner-up Panthers (3-6-1); the '95 champion Devils (2-4-1); and the '93 champion Canadiens (2-5) and runner-up Kings (2-3-1).
Part of the reason that teams like these finish poorly is that clubs whose playoff spots are assured early hold out valuable players with even the slightest of injuries from late regular-season games. (This year the Avalanche, who closed the season 3-6-1, and the Penguins, 4-4-2, were essentially locked into the second seed in their respective conferences for the last month.) Coaches also rest their healthy stars by spreading around ice time down the stretch.
More subtly, players who have an eye on the Cup can have a difficult time sustaining intensity before the postseason. "There's just no way to replicate the playoff atmosphere in the regular season," says Colorado coach Marc Crawford. "You pace yourself during the season, and you pick certain spots for a big push. In the playoffs you let it all out on every shift. It's a different game."
That helps explain why so many other seeming harbingers of playoff success prove irrelevant. For instance, the Western Conference champion Stars and the Eastern Conference champion Devils should be aware that in the past eight seasons only three of the 16 conference champs advanced to the Cup finals. "We know that winning the conference doesn't mean a whole lot," says Dallas defenseman Derian Hatcher, "but every player here wanted home ice advantage."
Still, the fact remains that the regular season is little more than a long and inconsequential pageant. It also points up one of the exciting aspects of the postseason: The journey to the Stanley Cup proves all the more captivating because it is so unpredictable.
Hockey's Most Wanted Man
Oilers president and general manager (and former coach) Glen Sather assembled and guided the Edmonton teams that won five Stanley Cups from 1984 to '90, and though the Oilers have missed the playoffs four times this decade, he remains among the shrewdest traders and talent evaluators in the game. So it's no wonder that Sather has so many suitors after having made it known that with his contract expiring after this season, he's considering leaving Edmonton.
"He could be the most-sought-after free agent," says Bruins general manager Harry Sinden. "The bottom line is knowing who can play and who can't play, and Glen probably knows that better than any of us."
The possibility of Sather's departure after 19 years is rooted in the recent sale of the financially strapped Oilers to a consortium of 17 businessmen. To stay in Edmonton, Sather wants assurance the multiheaded new ownership will 1) be as hands-off on day-today hockey decisions as previous owner Peter Pocklington was, and 2) give him the budget needed to compete for a Cup. "I've been in survival mode for seven years," says Sather, whose Oilers finished seventh in the Western Conference and began the season with an $18.5 million payroll, third lowest in the NHL. "I'd like to have the opportunity to win."